This idea behind this post first started working it’s way into my mind about a year ago. While I was preparing my Lent course, I started to think about food and books, and particularly about food and detective fiction, my favourite type of fiction.
I’ve been reading and watching a lot of detective fiction over the last year. Mainly, I admit, watching as I try and work my way through whole series using the Winnipeg Public Library.
I was further encouraged in this direction when I visited Pho Yo a couple of weeks ago. I picked up Diane Mott Davidson’s, Catering to Nobody. I’ve finished this book, and I think I’ll give a few more a try. Although, when the lead character suggested that as far as Szechuan food was concerned, she thought that spicy food was concerned spicy food should be left to the Mexicans, I was tempted to hurl the book against the wall. However, I stuck it out, and can only hope the lead character’s palate improves as the series goes along.
Food figures to varying degrees in detective series. For one thing, it’s a great conveyance for poison. Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, is just one example of such a case. Sayers created Wimsey at a time when she was poor and claimed to have made him incredibly wealthy so that she could indulge in the culinary fantasies she herself couldn’t afford. This is a common thread in many Golden Age detectives. Sayers herself developed into quite a gourmand later in life and enjoyed good food and fine wine for the remainder of her life.
Crime-Fighting Foodie Types
As detective fiction has moved towards realism, with it’s emphasis on forensic evidence, especially DNA, the role of food has diminished and has more often become a shorthand method for describing a detective’s character, providing some levity, or perhaps both. While the gourmand detective may have felt more at home in detective fiction’s Golden Age, there are still several detectives series where the food obsessed reader can find something of culinary interest beyond red herrings. There are several styles of detective/food relationships. I’m going to list a few.
This detective is usually not all the concerned with food. While the character may be found eating on occasion, their drinking or drug use is more often the focus. This seems to be shorthand for their single-minded dedication to get to the truth. The obvious character is Sherlock Holmes and his opium addiction. Two of my very favourites fall into this category. Inspector Morse and his Glenfiddich consumption, and John Rebus with his heavy drinking tempered somewhat? with fairly copious amounts of Irn-Bru? Although, to be fair to Morse, he is partial to Mrs. Lewis’s egg and chips.
This detective falls into the food as fuel category. As short-hand this detective also always has a messy desk, messy clothes and never gets along with superiors. Andy Dalziel from Dalziel and Pascoe is one such detective(with heavy drinking as a bonus). Barbara Havers from the Inspector Lynley series is another one. Havers is rare in that she’s is a long-running female character who doesn’t care in any way about her appearance. Then there’s Inspector Frost, for whom being a slob also provides for comic relieve, though he never did fall through a service opening at a bar.
Along with the above mentioned Inspector Frost food as comic relief is also a frequent feature in the Dangerous Davies stories. Especially in the videos, Davies is always losing his food in one ingenious way or another.
Food doesn’t really feature in the crime-fighting:
This tends to feature more in series where the main detective character is fairly serious. I don’t remember for example food playing a major role in the Adam Dalgliesh novels. The same holds true for George Gently.
I’m sure I’m missing a couple of categories. Feel free to enlighten me in the comments below. Now I’ll move on to seven series where food place a fairly central role. I placing the characters in reverse from my least to most favourite, based on their food qualities.
This series is set in the fictional English district of Midsomer, a place so murderous it makes Winnipeg look like the world’s safest city. I haven’t watched any of this series since the introduction of John Barnaby. However, in the early series many episodes feature family meals, and there is a long-running theme of Joyce Barnaby’s (the original Inspector Barnaby’s wife) and her constant attempting of recipes that are beyond her ability, or that should just never be attempted.
It’s always amazing how much case detail the Inspector is willing to share with family over meals. This theme will come up again in this post.
Unfortunately I can’t find a clip that focuses on any of the dining scene.
This is one of the most interesting detective series around, as far as the videos are concerned. Written by Donna Leon, an American. Set in Venice, and shot in German, these stories, often feature family dinners, much like Midsomer Murders. Family discussions often end up an aid to Brunetti’s crime-fighting. Unlike Midsomer Murders, the plot lines in this series are dark and gritty. Beyond the family discussions, family meal prep is also a recurring theme in this series.
Again I couldn’t find any food clips, but here’s a link to the Brunetti cookbook.
Stephen Fry says that Columbo is the greatest of all the TV detectives, and I don’t think he’s too far off the mark. It turns out that his popularity is such, that there in fact webpages dedicated to Detective Columbo and his food habits. In addition to his own eating he was always trying to pick up tips to take back home to his wife. Below is a YouTube clip with several instances of Columbo and food.
This series was recommended to me just after I started watching Pie in the Sky. Montalbano is the creation of Andrea Camilleri. I watched the videos and at first I was disappointed because I felt the food was given short shrift. In the TV series, Montalbano is often seen compiling his meals, but little is said about it. The meals provide a nice counterpoint to the gritty nature of the rest of the series.
After reading one of the novels, I found that there was more food detail in the novels. Also I found that as the series progressed, the food did seem to come a little bit more to the forefront, especially in relationship to the increasingly corpulent coroner. Dr. Pasquano.
Again I couldn’t find food clips, but did find a link to a cookbook.
I’m basing this on the Bruno Cremer TV interpretation. Cremer’s Maigret reminds me the most of Columbo in his approach to asking seemingly random questions to solve the crime. Maigret comes across as an understated gourmand, and a man who appreciates the traditional foods of the areas he visits.
One thing that really stands out to me about Maigret is how generous he is with his junior officers. He quite often is seen paying for their meals and drinks.
Again, no clips, but a cookbook, based on the fictional culinary efforts of Mme. Maigret.
Here’s a classic Golden Era detective for whom food was central to his story. One of his rules, is that he is never to be disturbed while at table. The Wolfe story are told by his assistant Archie.
As a character, I don’t find Wolfe particularly likable. He is a demanding gourmet prone to flying into rages when his wishes aren’t met.
I’ve never read any of the books, but I really loved the TV series from 2001-02. Wolfe is played by the late, great Maury Chaykin. However my favourite character was Archie played by Timothy Hutton who was terrific in the con-artist, Robin Hood series, Leverage.
Below is a clip of Wolfe arguing with his chef.
Pie in the Sky:
A restaurant owning detective. You can’t get much more food based than that. In this case, the show is fairly lighthearted, on the crime front with very few of the episodes involving death, or believable plots. However, the cooking scenes are very good, and there are some who credit the show with helping to keep food issues in front of the British public.
Richard Griffiths, as detective/chef Henry Crabbe looks like he belongs in a kitchen
Below is the trailer for the first series.
Well that’s my list. I hope I’ve been able to pique your interest in the intersection between crime fiction and cookery. If you haven’t looked up any of these already, take the time and do so, they’ll leave your mouth watering.